Quote Unquote: BEARSKIN by James A. McLaughlin

Somebody must have kicked the reading machine in my head real hard, because it’s working overtime at the moment. I suppose it’s the very real threat of having to read up on plotless educational policy and classroom management that is making fiction so damned attractive at this point in time. With lessons well underway and the dreaded Numeracy Skills Test now but a distant memory, the next task looming is the first of the PGCE written assignments – perhaps the first written assignment in my life that I will not be able to wing on the back of a clunky box of quirky and otherwise useless general knowledge. My capacity for absurdity became something of a badge of honour at university as I made it a personal prerogative to shoehorn the most bizarre comparisons into every essay I submitted. Samurai and pashtunwali found their way into an essay on Lope de Vega. The sea witch from The Little Mermaid popped up in an assignment on La Celestina. The Sack of Baltimore somehow drifted into a commentary on Spanish banditry. And then there was that unforgiveable allusion to the nest-building practices of great-crested grebes in a second-year Spanish language exam on cultural divisions (I got scorched for that one, justifiably, and I don’t think it was because my examiners stumbled over the word somormujo).

Nope. This is one essay that I will have to write with my own blood. And my head will not thank me for it.

So, conscious that I will scarcely have the time to do my own writing this year, I shall endeavour to persevere with my reading project. After muscling through Thin Air in forty-eight hours (a personal record), I threw myself right into another. This time around, I thumbed around for something different and picked James A. McLaughlin’s Bearskin off the shelf…

……..

“Gruesomely gorgeous” is certainly one way of putting it (New York Times Book Review). Bearskin tells the tale of Rice Moore, an Arizona ex-con working as a caretaker on the Turk Mountain preserve in the forests of Virginia whose decision to get to the bottom of a local bear-hunting operation brings him into conflict with the locals, the law, and ghosts from his past. At times hard-edged thriller of the “Dark South”, at others a quasi-mystical exploration of man in the wilderness, Bearskin is a powerful retelling of the lone-man-standing-up-for-the-forest genre, without the ego or distasteful pessimism of the twenty-first century eco-warrior. Rice makes for an appealing hero, a man with no illusions on whom the forest works its magic. Some of the characters are satisfyingly familiar: a John Wayne, no-bullshit sheriff; a thickset Redneck patriarch and his lawless, swaggering sons; a psychopathic assassin who says nothing and yet instils more fear at the mention of his name than any other man in the book. And then there are the others: Dempsey Boger and his hounds, the ethereal mushroom-picker and, of course, the bears themselves.

There are points in the narrative – fugues – when you cannot be entirely certain which world you are in. When the forest takes on a mysterious character of its own and colours and images swim before your eyes in unfamiliar patterns, and time seems to flow in both directions at once. Moore’s ghillie-clad seclusion on the mountain is ritualistic and deliberately so, serving in a sense as an awakening. It was almost stupefying to read. I’ve never taken magic mushrooms myself, but I felt like I had after one of the scenes. Trips may well be relatively easy to recreate through the medium of film, but McLaughlin certainly knows how to write one.

There was only one thing I was left wanting from the story, and that was something more about the bears. They serve as a springboard for the main events of the narrative, but I caught myself waiting for a gratifying (if cliched) encounter with one of the bears at some point towards the end. One gets the sense they are always there, on the periphery of Rice’s world, more like ghosts than creatures of flesh and blood. And perhaps that much is true of the wild, as man and his endless pursuit for dominance pushes such spirits further and further into oblivion. All the same, I reckon the bears might have appreciated some closure.

 


Favourite Scene:

The hellish image of the baiting scene deserves a special mention for its sheer monstrosity: the pawless, gutted carcasses of two bears beneath the totemic severed head of a Charolais, suspended from the trees above by a bloody rebar driven through its eyes. The buzz of flies above, the growl of worrying hounds below and the sickly stench of liquorice. I’d like to give a hand to the stalking scene towards the end for its pace and power, but this static freeze-frame is just one of those scenes that will stay lodged in your mind’s eye forever. Some stories produce characters of eternal weight, others moments of utter majesty, and others still paint pictures with flesh, blood and the stuff of nightmares. There’s a lot of human villainy in Bearskin, but the baiting scene takes the biscuit. Somehow the absence of the perpetrators does the trick: the aftermath is far worse in its silence than the act itself.

 


Favourite Character:

The mushroom picker. McLaughlin strings out a strongly convincing cast of Southern marionettes in Bearskin, but there is one oddity in the bunch who, like the pip of a blackberry, sticks in your jaw long after the cast has come and gone. I was never entirely sure whether he was real or not – and neither am I alone in my doubt, as Rice himself asks this question at least once – but his brief appearances were memorable, to say the least. Who was he? Where did he come from? Was he a mountain man, or something stranger – a vengeful woodland sprite or god, a green man, released from the deepwoods to send the protagonist on a quest? When first he appeared, Rice mistook him for a bear – a mistake he made again on the mushroom picker’s second appearance. To my eyes he is certainly more Beorn than Bombadil, and whatever the author intended him to be, he comes across as by far the most enigmatic and powerful character to emerge from McLaughlin’s narrative.

 


Favourite Quotes:

Information about the universe leaked from the open eye like poison gas.

“So many people hate snakes. I think it’s because they threaten people’s worldview – they’re alien, limbless, impossible, black magic: a stick come to life. But maybe we’re all sticks come to life. We want to think we’re exceptional, ensouled, angel fairies or God’s special children. The magic of being animate matter isn’t enough.”

They ate a quick breakfast, homicide having no effect on their appetites.

 

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Stormchasing

It only rained for three minutes this evening – four, at a push – but it was enough. The muggy, sweat-laundering heat that swallowed me body and soul from the moment I stepped out of the plane this morning is over, and with a night breeze blowing and the temperature pleasantly cool, the last three hours of the day are for writing. I’ve not had the time or mental energy to put pen to paper for several months, and I doubt I will at all next year. So tonight, and maybe for the next few nights, the sun is shining and a haymaker am I.

Sweet Caroline is playing on a loudspeaker in the hotel bar down the road. The only other sounds, besides the ever more distant rumblings of thunder, are the chirring of crickets, the metallic ring of a flagpole in the wind and snatches of conversation from the holidaymakers in the surrounding block. I thought tonight might be a night for geckos, but I can’t see or hear any tonight. Not on my balcony, anyway. The rain might have driven them off.

Beach holidays have been late in coming to me. As with so much in my life, I suppose I have been contrary: what appealed to everybody else must therefore be uninspired and dull. I’d love to say I’m still game to throw myself gung-ho into another madcap adventure, but after a year in a boarding school, I’m quite spent, and for once the idea of spending more than a couple of days on the beach isn’t quite as dreary as it once sounded.

Ok, scratch that. The storm that rolled in over the cliffs today lit a fire in my soul and I was up and out the door in a heartbeat.

Standing alone atop the wind-scarred wastes of the Cap des Redoble, I looked out to the west and watched the thunderstorm come rolling in. I have seen displays of grater majesty and covered my ears before more deafening drumrolls, but it felt truly sensational to stand alone, high atop a cliff, as thunderbolts great and small rained down all around me.

Some forked across the sky, skirting beneath the clouds like bubbles under ice, whilst others weaved in and out of the haze as though there were a holes in the clouds. Others still hurtled straight into the sea offshore, some thin and wispy, others monstrous and so bright they lit up the sea in their wake and pulsed in stasis upon the grey canvas of the sky behind before disappearing into the ether – invariably just before I’d pressed down the shutter on my camera.

I love a good thunderstorm. Who doesn’t? It is truly one of nature’s most awesome performances, and who can blame the ancients for believing gods great and wicked were behind such electric devilry. Only weeks ago I wandered out into the grounds at night to watch a silent storm from the hilltop, and stood in equally silent awe for almost half an hour as lightning danced across the sky in flashes of silver and violet, twelve strikes to a minute. And six years before that, in the garden of the bishop’s residence in Boroboro, I watched a similar storm paint the sky shades of purple I had never seen before.

I had planned this first post to be about swimming with tetras and breams and mullets and wrasse, but the thunderstorm that followed somewhat stole its… well. You get the idea.

Nature has always been my elixir. A reliable restorative that works every time, if only I allow myself the time to go out in search of it. That’s part of the draw of working in a rural boarding school, I guess – that at any given moment, if I have an hour or two to spare, I can strap on my walking shoes and be in the heart of an English forest within minutes. My fears are gone, the world is put to rights and my soul is singing. Amman simply couldn’t offer that and I suffered.

In The Power of One, one of Bryce Courtenay’s best and one of my favourite books of all time, the wise and humble Doc tells Peekay that, whatever the question, ‘the answer you shall find in nature‘. Wise words and I swear by ’em. I just wish I were wise enough to act on them more often. Next year is likely to be my greatest hurdle yet, and I will need every trick in my arsenal to pull through.

Four more days in Menorca are just what the doctor ordered. And when Menorca is but a distant memory, a thunderstorm or two like the one I saw today wouldn’t be so bad. BB x

The Strength of Blood

Seat eighty-six, coach two. A sky full of flat-bottomed clouds. The immensity of La Mancha racing by in a haze of olive green, dirty white and wine red, with scarlet carpets of poppies laid out in the tall grass of the wheat-fields. Ruined farmhouses crumbling amongst the endless vineyards, men and women bent double as they work the fields, and a lonely oak tree standing tall. Woodpigeons scattering in the wake of the train; a single kestrel perched high upon a telegraph pole; a pair of harriers wheeling overhead on slender wings, the female a living shadow of the earth below, the male a silver spirit of the sky above. I cannot see the bustards I saw on the way here, nor the rabbits or hares or even the magpies. But far off to the south the land rises, and I can see the blue hills of La Solana and Infantes, the vanguard of the sierras of Andalusia. Andalusia: where all of this began.

It seems strange, now, to imagine this whole Spanish adventure without my family at the heart of it. All those years spent wandering in the shade of the stone pines of Doñana, hiking in the scrubby mountains around Grazalema and anchoring myself in one way or another to an ancient, characterful little corner (literally) of the province of Cádiz… I question why, a cup of café con leche in hand, we did not simply come straight here to La Mancha, where the family is, was and always had been, rather than go chasing the same Andalusian dream that ruined so many British families before us. It would have made a lot more sense, certainly. But such is the way of things, and if we had, would I have half the story to tell? Would I even be where I am today? I think not.

The high sierras of Ronda. The stone pine forests of Huelva. The scent of snow in the Alpujarras, the Arabic lettering on the walls of the Alhambra and the pillared forest of the Great Mosque of Córdoba. And of course, the unspoilt wilds of Extremadura, from the plains of Cáceres to the paradise hills of La Vera. That is the Spain I know. The Spain I have come to love with all of my heart. Just as an athlete needs to warm up before a race, so too did I need to wander before finding my way. My mother chose the destination; I chose the road.

As I continue my wandering in the streets of Alcázar de San Juan, waiting for the connecting train to Madrid, I pass a small and modern church. Families pour out onto the street, shaking hands, exchanging kisses, the children playing chase in the street. I say to myself, aloud, “así habría sido mi vida, quizás…”. I walk in the direction of the windmills, knowing full well I will not make it there and back in the forty minutes at my disposal. I find a small park on the way and stop to eat a semicurado sandwich in a concrete ring decorated with painted tiles telling the story of Don Quijote. I must read that book, I really must. It’s nothing short of a crime to have come this far with my Spanish and not to have read the book.

An hour passes. The train sails through the lush greenery of Aranjuez. My mind races back to an August afternoon, many years ago, when my parents decided to break up the long drive south to our new home with a visit to the royal palace there. Twelve year-old me, with little to no idea what I was getting myself in for, crouched down over a pond staring at pumpkinseed fish. Leaving England behind meant nothing to me, then. I was going to live in a country with pumpkinseed fish, and eagles, and hoopoes, and vultures, and Cola Cao. I knew my priorities. These days I’m not so sure. I know what they are – that much I have learned – but which are the most pressing priorities, the ones I truly cannot live without… that is hard to say.

Without England, I would not have my music. My gospel choir. My a cappella group. My funk band and the chance to pour all my heart and soul into the most powerful necessity on the planet. But without Spain, I would not have my greatest love. I would not have my family, my ever-changing, ever-constant paradise, and the happiness machine that is the Spanish language itself (forgive the overuse of the word “my” – it is so very easy to feel possessive about the things you care the most about). For the last three years I have been forced to choose between the two, and it has done its level best to tear me apart.

Seat forty-eight, coach one. Getafe rises up and out of the fields, heralded by an advance guard of red tower blocks on the horizon. The wilderness is behind us now; the metropolis ahead. Last night I dreamed I was climbing a steep forested hill, when out of nowhere a stag, huge and thunderous with broad antlers, bolted out of the bushes, cleared the fence to my left in a single leap and came to a halt on the other side of the path, looking back at me as though to challenge me. Google says to dream of a stag is an augur of caution against making hasty decisions, and that a running stag foretells a great deal of luck in family life. It sounds like superstitious stuff and nonsense to me, but in truth, I have not had a dream so vivid in a long time. And I have been known to avoid walking under scaffolding.

By eight thirty tonight I will be back at work. With exam season in full swing I could hardly ask for more than I already have. But I return home full of light. Spending the weekend with my family has been everything I wanted it to be and more besides, just like it was this time last year, and the Easter before that. I have never known a happiness quite like it. Seeing the shock, the joy and the tears on my little cousin’s face when he saw me in the church of San Blas… it is a memory I will never forget. Last year it was the novelty of discovery that shook me. Now it is the strength of love and blood, the strongest of all ties. And it will keep me strong until we meet again. That much I know. BB x

Screamers

April isn’t normally a mad month. This one has been, though. Since getting back from La Mancha, I’ve been here, there and everywhere. Performing in the school play. Working at a Language Immersion weekend in Burguillos del Cerro with the local EOI. Attending extra Gospel Choir rehearsals in Zafra. Taking additional classes at school, cancelling my private classes (at last) and doing intensive research in the library. For what is supposed to be a twelve-hour working week, I’ve been rather busy. It’s never anything that I can’t handle, though, and with the end in sight now, lesson planning is becoming easier rather than harder. That’s some small relief.

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Parroquia de Santa Maria de la Encina y San Juan Bautista, Burguillos del Cerro

The weather, though… What is with the weather this year? Ignoring the fact that I’m English and that my first blog post in almost a month should naturally be to talk about the weather, it’s been one of the weirdest years for weather I’ve ever seen. First the cold, then the rain – three and a half weeks of it – then a week of glorious sunshine, then hard rain again, and now summer, with high humidity and thunderstorms forecast over the Puente de Mayo. It’s as though Spain just forgot to do Spring this year.

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I’m wondering whether that Star of David tucked away in there was intentional…

Winter was long, dry and freezing cold here in Tierra de Barros. Spanish houses are designed with the long, sweltering summers in mind, and though they’re well-adapted to shutting out the light and heat in August, they’re lamentably bad at keeping it in during the winter months. You basically need the brasero (a flat heater, often kept beneath a covered table) on every night. It’s a long battle between cold hands, feet and everything, and the bimonthly electricity bill, and the latest invoice that’s been lying on the kitchen table for the last fortnight serves as a reminder of the cost of the season’s war crimes. It’s a pity one can’t live in Spain for half the year and England for the other. You could make a killing on the savings.

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Booted Eagle (aguila calzada) from the castle at Burguillos

On a minor note, it’s impossible to get into a comfortable position on this sofa. There. I’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room. We can move on.

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Painted Lady taking a break on the castle top

I’ve been wondering what to write the next blog post about for a while. A couple of weeks ago the bee-eaters arrived, on the very day I’d commented on their absence, and that brought joy to my heart. Later, I had the Language Immersion, which raised some rather disconcerting news concerning my beloved Extremadura, but that wasn’t strictly blog-worthy. I also dug out the local library’s regional encyclopedias, which were filled to the brim with local information I could only dream about before… but at the risk of boring you all senseless, I’ll wait until I’ve properly processed the information before regurgitating it here and now. No, the answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind.

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Or should I say, screaming.

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The swifts have been here for over a month now, hawking overhead on their way north alongside the hundreds of swallows, martins, kites and storks also bound for northern Europe, but the Villafranca contingent only arrived a few weeks ago. How do I know this? Well, it’s quite simple, really. I know this because the screaming only began a few weeks ago. The collective noun for a flock of swifts varies, with some opting for a box of swifts, or the more alliterative swoop of swifts, though in perfect honesty I’m going to tip my hat to the chappie who coined the phrase a ‘screaming frenzy’ of swifts – because anybody who’s familiar with these peculiar creatures will know that they’re not exactly the most inconspicuous of birds, to put it lightly.

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Swifts are odd-looking birds, to say the least. In flight, they’re right out of a kid’s drawing: long, tapering wings with no trailing fingers, a stubby, featureless face and a cigar-shaped body which makes them look more like a fish that grew feathers and took to the sky. At the same time, their large brown eyes and tiny mouths lend something mousy to their appearance, too. They’re not even that closely related to swallows and martins, with which they share the skies. But whatever they are, they’re endlessly fun to watch, as they duck and weave and scream and perform some of nature’s most endearing acrobatics on a summer evening, seemingly for the sheer thrill of it.

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The saying “one swallow does not a summer make” holds more and more weight here in Spain, especially now that in recent years many swallows never leave at all, opting instead to take their chances with the Spanish winter rather than brave the journey across the Sahara and back. Swifts, on the other hand, are die-hard migrants, spending almost their entire lives on the wing. They eat, sleep, mate and collect all the material they need to build their nests in the air. The ancients believed they never came down at all: their scientific name – apus – derives from the Greek for ‘without feet’. Needless to say they do, like all birds, though they’re small and underdeveloped in comparison to their powerful wings. I’ve only ever seen a swift’s feet once, and that was because I found a dead fledgling beneath the eaves of the village church when I was thirteen. I remember Adisham being a haven for rare birds then: spotted flycatchers, yellow wagtails, corn buntings, grey partridges and even local rumours of a lonely corncrake. I wonder how it’s faring now.

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There are five species of swift in Spain: the common swift (above), the larger brown-and-white Alpine swift and the chunkier pallid swift, and the two newcomers from Africa, the white-rumped and little swifts (you’ll see the latter a lot more readily if you take a wander through the streets of Marrakesh, where they make a habit of weaving between the heads of the shoppers on their way to their nests). It’s the common swifts we get here in Villafranca, the same kind we see back home in England, even though theirs is a sound I have come to associate more and more with Spain than England. Like the cuckoo and the turtle dove, the early summer screams of the swift faded into memory as I grew up and they began to disappear. It can’t be easy, sharing our little island with Man.

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Look close and you’ll see the fly that once was

The older I get, the more I appreciate the simpler things. When I was younger, it was all about the bells and whistles: hoopoes with their punk-rocker crests, rollers with their shiny blue jackets and gallinules in their resplendent purple glory. I’m still mad about the gallinules, but a long detox from the serious bird-watching of my teen years has done me wonders. Swifts and starlings are just as worth watching these days as kites and eagles, with the added bonus being that they can be counted on to be outside my window at any given moment… Although, that being said, it’s a rare moment when I look out the window and don’t find myself picking out a kite, stork or eagle in the blue sky. Yesterday I’d popped my head out for just a minute when a raven flew over. My flat seems to be on the flight path, because most everything I see passes right overhead.

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Time for bed, I think. Well, another chapter of Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One and then bed, anyway. There are some authors I just keep coming back to. Bryce Courtenay is one of them. BB x

Slow Clocks and White Socks

Good morning from the staff room. My second 1°ESO class are busy preparing posters on British food for next week’s Semana Cultural this morning, so I’m off the hook for an hour. It’s a shame, really; they’re probably the one class that could have really benefited from a presentation on the UK, seeing as it’s what they’re working on right now. My other 1°ESO class loved it, and I dare say the addition of a Honchkrow to explain ‘honcho’ helped a lot in the ‘foreign words in English’ section. Not that honcho – a Japanese term for ‘big boss’ – is a word you expect to come across all that often, but it makes the language learning process a lot more colourful. Going over the same ‘how much is a ticket’ dialogue every week gets a bit dry, eventually.

I went for a walk in the park yesterday. It’s been so warm and sunny recently, I simply couldn’t justify going straight home from work. Tired as I was, I slapped a small lunch together, downloaded a few In Our Time podcasts and crossed the road into the park. It was a little windier than I’d have liked, so I didn’t stay all that long in the end. Without it, it might have been as warm as 18°C. In February. But here in the plains of Extremadura, we’re ruled by the terrain. The wind that blows across the flats is cold and loud, like something out of the Old West. You half expect a tumbleweed to pass you by. It’s a shame that we think immediately of America when we hear that name: with its wide open plains, rocky cliffs and canyons teeming with bandits, and its historic code of honour and justice, I’d like to think Spain was the real Old West; the Ancient West, if you will.

The swallows are here. I watched a few of them twittering noisily as they careered about the pond, whilst one of the town’s storks soared lazily overhead. The trees were alive with goldfinches, and I saw a huge bat on its way to the park from my flat the other night. It was a lot easier to consider a job in England a month ago, I’m telling you, before Spain started thinking about her Spring clothes. Now that it’s feasible to go to bed without having the heater on for a full hour, and the blue skies are no longer laden with a biting cold air, I find myself in love once again. The saying goes: ‘nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno’ – nine months of winter and three of Hell – but Spain can be equally unforgiving in the grip of winter.

I spent a little while watching a robin – always one of my favourite birds – and a couple of hoopoes flapping about like oversized butterflies. Symbols of England and Spain, in my head. I should go to the park more often.

It’s hard to see the change in the seasons here in Tierra de Barros, with the park full of evergreens and the surrounding eternity of vineyards and olive trees, but the animals tell you. And where they fail, the town drummers do a pretty good job. Carnaval is over, and I thought that might be the end of their incessant weekly drumming, but I was wrong: last night as I lay dozing in the living room, I heard the unmistakeable march of the Holy Week procession. It’s a good month away, but preparations have begun in earnest. But I’m not complaining: Semana Santa is far and away one of my favourite things in Spain and I never want to be anywhere else when it’s on. Like countless Brits before me, I’m shamelessly enthralled by the primal magic of it.

And, like countless Brits before me, I’m steadily coming to understand that our humour and theirs – or anybody else’s, perhaps – simply don’t mix. My jape about my countrified accent got cut from the play this morning. I guess they didn’t see the funny side. One of my students did point out to me recently that imitating their accent is one of the few things guaranteed to rile an extremeño. As a guiri, perhaps I’m allowed a certain amount of leverage – it’s always funny to see a foreigner having a go, I guess – but patience, in the end, wears thin. Especially when I have to make that same joke at twenty-five minutes past eight every Thursday morning.

A few weeks ago there was an article in The Times titled ‘How to be Spanish‘ that caused uproar on Spanish social media. The Spanish, it seems, don’t like being told how to be Spanish by an Englishman (a puto guiri, to quote various Twitter users). Surprise of the century. Spaniards came out with war flags, claiming the author had no idea what country he was talking about. Whoever these folks were who eat tapas at the bar and never at the tables, swear so liberally and have a slightly more relaxed attitude to time than the hyper-punctual English, they certainly weren’t Spanish.

Shortly afterwards, the Spanish retaliated with an article of their own on how to be British, citing such customs as queuing for everything, wearing white socks, wall-to-wall carpeting and, of course, our penchant for exaggeration. It was a childish exchange, but you have to admit, there were a few cultural nuances both sides got spot-on.

It was a lot of fun to discuss in class, I’ll give you that, but whilst I agree that the original author could have been a little less damning in his exaggerations – a flaw I’m often party to (see the war flags remark) – it seems to me that the problem lies not in the content itself, but in how it was received. Of course not all Spaniards act the way the author describes, but then, he doesn’t go out of his way to make that clear. And, of course, it wouldn’t be so funny if every observation in the article carried a disclaimer. Remember those jokes that your friends make that you didn’t get, and they then had to explain? Yeah… They weren’t funny at all.

As Brits, we read such things with a smile, seeing the irony and the humorous comparisons, because as a nation that’s what we do best: ridicule. We love to laugh, to laugh at others, and (sometimes) to be laughed at in turn. It’s not a universal attitude, but trying to be funny on a regular basis is, I think, an inherently British custom. Most everybody else has a life to be getting on with. Great Britain is cold, rainy and – according to some – has potentially the worst cuisine in the world (the very un-English chicken tikka massala was our most popular dish for years), but we are fantastic at making light of this and everything else, from our politicians and our history to our friends and neighbours, even if the rest of the world looks on in confusion. I gave up trying to introduce my kids to Blackadder and Monty Python a long time ago. It requires too much explanation. By contrast, Mr Bean works like a dream… because there’s no dialogue whatsoever. Which, given that he’s portrayed by easily one of our wisest and wittiest comedians, is a crying shame.

So that’s all it is. The British like being funny. And when our jokes involve people beyond our remit, we get confused when they take offence. Why can’t they see the funny side? The answer is simple: they don’t have to. That’s not to say we shouldn’t make jokes anymore. British humour is, in the humble opinion of this author, king. But we could be try to be a little more aware of what cultural difference means. If the Spanish come across as having a lax approach to time, it’s only because we’re unreasonably pernickety about it. The whole and ungeneralised truth lies somewhere in between.

Jokes are fine. Our problem is that we expect others to take a joke, to know when we’re being funny and when we’re not… and it’s not always easy. Especially in print. BB x

Soundbites II

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Gatwick South Terminal never changes. Every third man and their mother is hunched over their phone/tablet and speechless, lips pouted, eyes disinterested. The rush of noise in the waiting lounge is metallic; a firm ground bass of escalators and flight case wheels is cut through by the soaring soprano of children in the play area and the sparkling SFX of the last-stop speaker shops. A man eats a sandwich out of a yellow-and-brown cardboard box. A mother explains something in Polish to her son with a good deal of clapping, then takes a selfie with him. The advertising screen displays the latest range of Boohoo Man. And my eye itches. I should probably stop rubbing it.

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Gate information is still a good twenty minutes away. But it’s not all about waiting. The longest, coldest month of the year is gone. I’ve never seen a January run its course so quickly. But it has, and here we are halfway through February. Popping home to England for a job interview (and to see my family, whom I haven’t seen since September) was a good idea. I’ve missed England, more than I thought I might. One’s home country exerts a powerful force over the psyche if you leave it behind for so long. Tierra de Barros is not exactly the most spectacular place to be in winter, no matter how much the sun shines. Knowing my luck, however, Spain will put on its spring dress in a couple of weeks and I’ll wonder why I ever dreamed of England, perhaps on the very day I find out whether work will call me home or not. The point remains, however: January was short. I ought to make a habit of spending January with my girlfriend. It’s always dragged on so before.

14:57

I definitely, definitively, undoubtedly heard somebody say acho in the queue for this flight. I also got off on the wrong foot by sitting near the desk; these Spaniards surprised me by forming an orderly queue rather than sitting in the waiting area. Or perhaps they were English tourists with a more generous complexion than mine. Over a decade of practice and all the fluency time can buy will never make me a Spaniard, thanks to blue eyes and blond hair. According to the tannoy, the flight to Seville this afternoon is extremely busy, quite unlike the way out. It remains to be seen whether they’ll slap my rucksack in the hold, but at least if they do, they won’t charge me for it. This is only the second British Airways flight I’ve ever taken and I already prefer it.

15:32

This plane is packed. They’ve just declared that’s there’s no room for large cases in the overhead lockers. I got in just in time. There must be a Valentine’s Day rush to Seville. I saw plenty of roses sticking out of people’s handbags on the way in. A couple of Londoners out in front kept me entertained in the queue: the girl waxed lyrical about using her friend as a source of air-miles and the husband kept trying to read his paper in the gaps in her conversation. It helped to ease the nerves somewhat. Behind the grumbles, the problematic passports and the enormous wheelie-suitcases, the other passengers are only fellow human beings.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. It helps.

19:08

We left some twenty-five minutes late and we’re landing only five minutes behind schedule. I’m impressed. It still wouldn’t have been enough time to catch the bus to Plaza de Armas and then onwards to Villafranca, but that doesn’t matter; Fran’s picking me up. Sweet relief. It’s odd, to be going from the plane one night to work the following morning, but that’s adult life, I suppose. I guess it only feels weird because as kids we’re used to the holidays wrapping our trips abroad in precious time. It’s a reason to stay in the education sector, and that’s a fact.

20:21

The Spain I took off from on Thursday is a whole lot greener today. I guess it rained over Carnaval weekend. It always rains over Carnaval weekend. You’d be surprised how much of a difference that makes. I loved being back in England for the green trees, the gentle grassy slopes of the South Downs, the brooks and streams and the sea… I need that. I wasted away in Jordan without it, despite the best efforts of my companions. And Tierra de Barros, it must be said, could be an awful lot greener. But spring is on its way, a good deal earlier than I thought, and I’m about to fall in love again. I think I missed the cranes – they normally take their leave this weekend – but if I hop on my bike this weekend, I might just catch one of the hen harriers I’ve seen ghosting about the fields, though I doubt I’ll be lucky enough to run into the sandgrouse I saw from the bus. If I can’t write authentically about the wildlife here yet, it’s because I’ve yet to have the time to go out and soak in it. This weekend will be my first weekend in months where I have no immediate plans. I intend to make the most of that. I might not make it as far as Hornachos, but I intend to get out. And now that I have my thermals – a Lycra equivalent is apparently essential for cycling out here – I won’t look like a foreign jerk. It’s the details that make the picture. BB x

Morito

Little Moor. That’s one translation for one of Spain’s most beautiful natural treasures, a gaudy creature of swamps and marshes that we know as the glossy ibis. Dressed as it is in chocolate brown with feathers that flash green and purple in the sunlight, it’s easy to see how this characterful bird got its name: its very being evokes another world, one that lies across the Mediterranean sea, of men of small stature dressed in jewels and shimmering silks. The Moors and their Spanish kingdom are long gone, but there are hints of that world all around to this day – if you know where to look.

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You can spot a flock of ibises from a long way off by their colour alone. The wetlands in which they live, such as the Doñana National Park, teem with white herons, egrets, spoonbills and flamingos, all of which stand out a mile against the Spanish skies. Down on the ground, however, the ibis is a good deal more conspicuous, rummaging around in the water in groups that can number as much as a hundred strong. Like their wading cousins, ibises fly in a loose V-formation. It’s quite a sight to watch them going to and from their roosts as the sun sets at the end of the day, with flocks departing in waves for the security of the trees. I’ve lost count of the number of times I used to stand on the rusty fences that border the village of El Rocío to watch hundreds of ibises, egrets, herons and ducks all making their way into the park interior.

You might think a bird as beautiful as the ibis would have a beautiful voice to match. You’d be wrong. As is so often the case in the world of birds, the best feathers do not necessarily mean the best voice. Ibises, like flamingoes, have a very inelegant call, low and grunting, not too dissimilar to a cow on helium. They make a whole host of other sounds at their roost sites, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself. It’s quite the experience. And, I might add, quite the smell, too.

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These are the ibises that the Egyptians worshipped. Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, was often portrayed with an ibis’ head. According to one legend, a plague of winged serpents descended upon Egypt every spring, only to be stopped at a mountain pass by scores of ‘ibis birds’ which devoured them all. Herodotus claimed that the birds of this particular legend were jet-black, which points towards the morito. This leaves their close cousins, the stately sacred ibises, in a bit of a fix; and if you have ever seen their kind rummaging around in refuse dumps as they are wont to do, their smaller, darker morito appears far more worthy of worship.

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Morito surely is a fitting name for such a princely creature. Spain has a long love-hate relationship with its African past, which centuries of church doctrine and cultural genocide have failed to quell. Al-Andalus faded into the fabric of history centuries ago, but it left behind the ibis, and it soothes my heart a little to think that maybe, just maybe, I am watching the spirits of that most beautiful and industrious past when I see a flock of moritos flying by.

BB x